And Back Again, by David Bax
Amidst the poetic images of the Sahara, there’s a palpable tension in the opening scenes of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. Taking place during the 2012 occupation of the titular city (actually filmed in the neighboring country of Mauritania) by Islamic militants, many guns are on display in nearly every shot. They’re leaning against tent walls and hanging from the shoulders of those plodding through mosques. Despite exhibiting the languid pace of those who live in desert heat, the film acknowledges that any one of those firearms could be one of Chekhov’s (they’re mostly Russian-made, to boot). Yet, Sissako deflates this tension with laughs for a time, before changing gears again and using the comedy again as contrast to a story that is almost unfathomably disturbing.
When a jihadist, apparently given the task of town crier, walks through the streets with a personal PA system, reading in multiple languages a list of things that are now forbidden, the result is darkly hilarious. Singing and dancing are outlawed, Footloose-style, and women must wear gloves in the market (obviously). There’s a sense of gallows absurdity reminiscent of Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, another satiric tapestry of an occupied people. Add in goofy jokes like a cow named GPS who ironically keeps wandering off course and you’ve got a great comedy from an unexpected place.
Eventually, however, one of those guns does indeed go off. And someone caught singing gets publicly flogged. And worse things than that happen, too. The brutality doesn’t obliterate the comedy but instead highlights that many of those things you were just laughing at are as real as can be. They’d be ridiculous if they weren’t actually happening to people every day. In Timbuktu, Sissako and cinematographer Sofian El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Color) give us beautiful frames that are nearly otherworldly in their beauty, vast canvases of desert brown punctuated with the occasional bright silk tent or robe or a solitary tree. It looks like a fantasy until the same eye turns toward a couple buried up to their necks and sand and pelted with stones until they’re dead.
Sissako finds both cinematic and emotional grace in the defiance of the occupier’s stringent new rules. In a moment of lovely respite before the thugs knock down the door, a group of people lounge at home, playing music while a woman sings. In another delicate scene, boys run up and down a football pitch, pantomiming the kicking of a ball and the scoring of goals. The militants have banned football but Sissako finds the elegance of these bodies in motion. Without an implement to kick around, they behave like a flock of birds, turning and swarming around the pitch according to their own exquisite internal logic. Then an enforcer comes by on a motorcycle and the boys suddenly pretend they are exercising, shifting into more rigid movements.
Sissako uses the difference in language spoken by opposing forces to highlight their distance. Interrogators and prisoners are on the same plane visually but the need for a translator illustrates how far apart their worlds are. As in Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger, Sissako allows these conversations to play out in full, with one character talking, then the translator talking, then the other character responding, then the translator responding. There are further layers of juxtaposition, too. While one militant decrees a public death sentence for a cattle herder, multiple smartphones lie on the table before him. It throws into relief the difference between what we think of as medieval and the modern world where we live while simultaneously acting as a reminder that these things take place right here. Timbuktu’s alluring refinement may feel ethereal but this isn’t some twisted, arid Atlantis. This is now.